Conor Toomey came to Storrs Hall after working with Michael Wignall at The Latymer, Pennyhill Park, (two Michelin stars), where he was promoted to sous chef, followed by a stint in the kitchen at Coworth Park, Ascot (three AA rosettes). This wealth of experience and inspiration has already helped to gain three AA rosettes for the Storrs Hall restaurant.
Conor is a chef who loves the creativity and excitement his career can bring. Accepting that it is a very tough life, but one of choice, he relishes the start of the busy season after the slowness of the winter. He enjoys weddings – unusual amongst highly creative chefs – and has helped to enhance Storrs’ enviable reputation in catering for them, (on average three a month in the summer).
Conor’s approach to sourcing ingredients – the freshest, best quality, seasonal – is axiomatic. Unlike some of his peers, he is not obsessed with local provenance at all costs. He does work with local suppliers – witness the foraged pennywort, wild garlic and hare on his current menu – but will only accept the best, whether local or from further afield.
His menu changes within the seasons and with his suppliers. Some popular dishes, such as loin of hare and his yuzu dessert have remained on the menu for several weeks. Nevertheless, his creative juices are stimulated by new ingredients which he can transform into innovative and exciting dishes. This means he does not have a signature dish as such and his cuisine is constantly evolving.
This approach also helps in the management of his brigade of seven chefs – he needs nine – some of whom, including his sous chef, came with him from Coworth. As a group they are actively involved in suggesting, testing or fine tuning new dishes, giving them a role in the creative process.
Conor’s cooking is unapologetically complex, strong on both classical and modern techniques in producing multi component dishes with satisfying layers of flavour. Freeze drying and dehydrating to create airy powders and granules are part of an extensive range of current cheffy skills. He likes to experiment with interesting, if sometimes unpopular, techniques such as fermentation, as in his fermented cucumber granita with smoked eel parfait, which heightens the sweet and sour taste that no other process can achieve. A water bath is used to soften Jerusalem artichokes before grilling. Strawberries are compressed to create an intense stock. On the other hand, a duck dish is finished with a classic Jus gras in which rendered fat is combined with Xerez vinegar and duck stock.
Other influences on his cooking might include his personal love of curry and raita, hence yogurt with his cucumber granita; or the influence of Michael Wignall who introduced him to a northern speciality, pigeon peas, which appear on the menu as glazed maple peas.
Whilst approving of the current restaurant scene, especially in London, with their “incredible chefs… and massive creativity,” Conor cannot understand the vogue in Nordic design or the trend in relax informality where service takes a nose dive. Fine dining needs a little pomp and ceremony including fine napery, so he would also hate to have his food served on bare tables.
With a mixed client base, and the slow pace of change in the Lakes, he appreciates the need to attract a more local clientele. One method is an attractive price point. The set lunch on Sundays is £16.50 for two courses, £21.50 for three. The seasonal carte offers three courses for £52 with a supplement for cheese. However, the best bargain is the nine course tasting menu at £65, a snip compared with London prices.
Conor’s preference for stronger flavours is amply revealed in an exceptionally generous nine course tasting menu which includes amuse bouches, two seafood, two meat/game, two vegetarian dishes, and two desserts.
To start, one had to be careful not to eat too much of the delicious home-made soda bread and mini baguette
The delicate amuse bouches were a mini meal in itself, showing originality and precise attention to detail. A tapioca crisp flavoured with squid ink dressed with with taramasalata; pork crackling with saffron tapioca with chorizo jam; brioche, pork mayonnaise and truffle; and roasted aubergine puree with bread sticks all offered harmonious combinations which produced flavour explosions in the mouth. Tantalising the palate, with the added fragrance of truffle, they served their purpose well.
In the first course, a lively fermented cucumber granita balanced the intensity of smoked eel parfait. This marriage of fresh and rich flavours, given a dressing of yogurt and herbal lift with dill oil and fresh dill, acted almost as a palate cleanser with its light and refreshing qualities.
A colourful plate of roasted golden and red Heritage beetroot delighted in their vibrancy of colours and flavours. Robble valley goat’s curd added a gentle acidity which balanced the sweetness of the root vegetable. Dainty beetroot meringue simply dissolved in the mouth whilst puffed rye added a necessary crunchy texture.
Next came blackened Cornish red mullet, accurately timed to highlight its rich, shellfish like taste. Accompanied by olive tapenade, compressed celery, shellfish oil espuma, and a Bouillabaisse reduction, these strong flavours complemented each other well, the mullet not being lost amongst the other components. A well-made rouille and grilled fennel, which gave a mild aniseed note, completed this tour de force of fish cookery.
Preparing the glazed loin of hare with its immaculately cleaned rib bones was surely a labour of love. Such delicate meat received the precise timing it needed to maximise rich, gamey flavour. Morels and parsnip puree added a deep earthiness and contrasting texture whilst maple glazed peas provided an interesting nuttiness.
Jerusalem artichokes were cooked sous vide in a butter emulsion before being finished on the barbeque, giving an al dente texture and a slightly nutty taste. This worked well with the slight sweetness of roast celeriac puree, and the herbal boost of parsley oil.
The final savoury course comprised duck treated well in two classical ways, pan roasted breast which was well seasoned and rested, and slow cooked confit leg. Spiced granola added texture and flavour, and sprouting broccoli gave colour and crunch. Braised Yorkshire rhubarb and purees of rhubarb and prunes cut the richness of the meat and a classical jus gras round the dish off perfectly.
Two beautifully presented, complex desserts showed the strengths of the pastry section, employing some unusual ingredients and the latest technological wizardry.
Sweet Gariguette strawberries were delicate, soft and juicy with a pleasing fragrance. They were enhanced with a stock of compressed strawberry, given a lemony lift with wood sorrel and herbal freshness with mint ice. The accompanying quenelle of white chocolate ice cream added richness to this light, well-conceived dessert.
The second dessert might be seen as a playful interpretation of deconstructed lemon meringue. Here the lemon custard was frozen and paired with a Yuzu cremeaux which gave an added boost of citrus. Meringues were flavoured with green tea. Given its powerful nature, fennel pollen was used judiciously in an ice cream, giving it notes of liquorice, citrus and marshmallows.
Overall, it was a pleasure to sample Conor’s imaginative, skilfully wrought dishes. There was much to admire in their sheer labour intensity, thoughtful construction and clean presentation. As one of the few chefs in the Lakes producing cutting edge cuisine, he deserves even greater recognition, especially from the AA, Good Food and Michelin guides. Fine Dining Guide is keen to return on its next visit to the Lakes and will follow his progress with interest.